December 2010

Snowflake sleeps

It’s a good thing Snowflake is an indoor cat, as we’d lose him for sure on a night like this. After a morning of teaser flurries, the snow arrived in earnest around 3 pm and hasn’t let up since. In few hours since I last let Reggie out, we’ve gone from an inch or so dusting to ankle-deep, with the winter-thick sky still falling as flakes.

Snowflake resting

They say it will snow all night, and we’ll wake up with as many as 20 inches: nearly two feet! J had the foresight to bring the snow blower, which we usually store in the garage, onto our screened back porch so tomorrow morning, he’ll be able to blow a path from our back door to the backyard dog-pen, which is as far as we’re planning to venture.

Around noon, before the worst of the snow started, J and I walked to our neighborhood deli for lunch, and on the way home we stopped at our local market for a few ingredients for tonight’s dinner: anything to avoid the panicked crowds at the supermarket buying emergency milk, eggs, and bread. At the market, there was no sign of panic, just a handful of shoppers buying random Sunday essentials, like the men in line ahead of us, who bought a six-pack of beer, a jar of nacho cheese, and a jug of milk: enough to last them through this afternoon’s Patriots’ game and beyond. Even in the face of a winter emergency, you have to keep your priorities straight.

No backyard barbecues anytime soon

This is what our backyard looked like this time last year, after a solstice storm delivered a foot of snow. This past weekend’s solstice snowfall was much more modest–only a few inches, much of it melting yesterday–so it’s funny to compare the images of then and now.

Snowblower path

I haven’t been blogging much because of the usual grading grind that leaves me mired in paper-piles this time of year. On Monday, I submitted my end-term grades for Keene State, which means I’ve spent yesterday and today scrambling to catch up with various other tasks. This is the last week of classes for SNHU Online, so I have plenty of electronic papers and Discussion Board posts to read, as well as next semester’s online classes to prep. And then there are the usual last-minute preparations for Christmas: gifts to wrap and packages to ship. There’s never any end to the to-dos, it seems.

One long-delayed to-do that J finally buckled down and did for me was to buy me a new laptop, given how slow and temperamental my old one has become. When you teach online, it’s a huge time-suck to work on a machine that frequently loses its Internet connection, slows to a crawl when you try to open several programs, and is otherwise slow-pokey and old. As fast as my new laptop is–lightning-fast compared to my old one–I’m still facing the learning curve of getting used to a new machine and new software: where exactly is the “Delete” key on this keyboard compared to my old one, and how exactly do you do a print-preview in Word 2010?

If only...

I still haven’t transferred all of my files from old to new laptops, so I occasionally find myself working with both machines side-by-side, working on word-processing files on my familiar old laptop while surfing the Internet on my lightning-fast new one. One “old” program I haven’t yet installed on my new machine is the basic, bare-bones photo-editing software I’m used to using, so that explains another reason for recycling last year’s snow pictures: I haven’t taken many pictures while I’ve been grading, and I haven’t sorted through, cropped, or otherwise edited the few photos I have taken.

All in good time. The online semester will be over soon enough, and I’ll eventually get to the bottom of even that electronic paper-pile. Soon enough, my new laptop will feel as familiar as the old one, and before I know it, my old ways of doing things will be the ones that seem alien and awkward. Even as I type this, new snow is falling: just a few more inches predicted, still nothing like the foot we received this time last year. But even snowstorms of that magnitude will repeat again, eventually: although I’m not convinced that everything old becomes new again, I do know that everything new eventually becomes old.


I’ve decided it’s not the dresses themselves that catch my eye whenever I walk past Miranda’s Verandah in downtown Keene, but the light emanating from those dresses. On these dark days of December, when all my dog-walks are frigid and most happen in darkness, I can’t imagine myself wearing something short, sleeveless, and frilly…but I can imagine myself aglow with an inner fire, my soul smoldering within me like a torch.

I’ve quickly become re-accustomed this year to winter dog-walking, which is good given how often Reggie needs to go outside these days. Already it seems like an old habit to throw on my long down coat; grab my keys, a flashlight, and a few poop-scoop bags; and stroll around my neighborhood in a hat, scarf, and warm winter boots at all hours of night and day. Even when temperatures are in the teens, you quickly acclimate to the cold if you’re actually walking in it, versus watching the thermometer from inside. Your inner fire burns brighter and fiercer, and you give up fighting against the cold and simply relax into it instead. There’s no need to rush an old dog, and no need to fight the cold. Inside the shelter of your own skin and its protective layers, your life-light kindles and shimmers brighter than any star in the brilliant-black winter sky.

I wrote a similarly titled post almost exactly one year ago today, rekindling an age-old theme.

Glass globes with shop window reflections

It’s Finals Week at Keene State, so after holding one last round of office hours last night, today I’ll collect two batches of student essay portfolios, followed by a third on Thursday. Although I complain every year about my paper piles, I actually like Finals Week. After three months running myself ragged commenting on endless piles of student drafts, it’s nice to have an entire week devoted to one last read-through of final papers. Everything my students and I have been doing for the past three months culminates in these final portfolios, which represent a semester’s worth of procrastination, sweat, and tears.

Horse and Buggy Feeds with tree-shadow

One of my favorite pictures from this year’s Boston Marathon shows someone holding a hand-lettered sign at the base of Heartbreak Hill: “Get to it and do it!” Runners train for months, if not longer, for any given marathon, and runners training for the Boston Marathon steel themselves for the series of four hills they’ll face in Newton, approximately 16 to 20 miles into the race. Heartbreak Hill isn’t steep, with a vertical rise of “only” 88 feet, but it comes right at the moment when many runners are starting to lag. The mental challenge of any marathon is to get to any obstacle and do it, even (especially!) when you’re feeling the most tired.

For college students and instructors alike, Finals Week is a bit like Heartbreak Hill: most of the challenge is mental. After three months of writing and re-writing (or reading and re-reading) the same semester-long projects, students and instructors alike are eager for this race to be over. But between now and the finish line are a finite number of steps, and none can be skipped: the way you surmount the heartbreaking hill at mile 20 is the same way you ran all the previous miles, one step at a time.

Alley with graffiti

Last Thursday when I gave my final set of rough draft comments to my Thinking & Writing students, I could see in their body language how well these first-year “runners” were holding up in this semester’s “race.” Several of my students read my draft comments, sighed with determination, and put their papers down with a nod: yes. Seeing the contours of this particular hill, they resigned themselves to do it, knowing this last burst of sleepless nights and early morning revisions would sail them through the semester’s finish-line.

A few other students, though, were feeling the race weigh heavy in their bones: I could see it in the slump of their shoulders. “Is this a D paper,” one student glumly asked in response to my rough draft comments, and my assurances that it could be a much better paper if she applied to it the same self-confidence and assurance she demonstrated in several in-class freewriting sessions did little to cheer her. Knowing you have an uphill climb right when you’re feeling the most tired and demoralized is heartbreaking, and it takes more than reminders to keep going to keep your spirits up. Now that we’ve entered the final push of the semester, the main thing separating the students who end up doing well and the ones who end up crumpled and cramped on the side of the road is the sheer willpower and determination to keep running, step by step and word by word.

Labyrinth parking

I haven’t blogged since the end of NaBloPoMo mainly because we’ve reached the almost-end of the semester and my daily to-do lists have me running in circles.


I’ve written before about the circular shape of the last month of the semester, when “there’s no stopping the madly-out-of-control merry-go-round that is the life of a writing instructor: assign it, collect it, read and comment upon it, return it…then repeat, repeat, and repeat.” This stage of the semester is entirely predictable–you revisit it twice a year, in winter and spring–but it always feels a bit surprising nevertheless. Oh, yes…here we go again!

The madly cyclic, circular loop that is the last month of any academic semester feels labyrinthine while you trudge its long and winding path. You can see the end of the semester, which seems alluringly close, but there’s no shortcut around the winding way you have to tread to get to that endpoint. Whereas you can get lost in a maze, there’s no getting lost in a labyrinth: you just have to be patient enough to keep walking, step by step, until you reach (and return from) the end.


As exhaustingly repetitive it feels as a writing instructor to keep collecting and commenting on subsequent drafts of the same semester-long research projects, the monotony of this seemingly endless feedback loop merely mirrors the repetitive tasks my students themselves are facing. For an entire semester, my Thinking & Writing and Creative Nonfiction students have been chipping away at their essays, one word (and one research source) at a time. Right about now, my students are ready to be done with their projects, and I’m ready for them to be done, too.

At times, revision feels like you’re revisiting the same ideas over and over as you pore over the stubborn knots in your thinking. The overwhelming enormity of writing a semester-long project and the sheer monotony of the effort it takes to actually do it are again labyrinthine: “The message of a labyrinth is to persevere–take the next step–keep going even if the way seems long or confusing. You will get there, and back, safely, a labyrinth seems to reassure. Take care with this next step, and peace will follow all the rest.”

Parking lot labyrinth

It’s a lesson that’s easy to forget, even if you revisit it twice a year, every year. It’s a lesson that bears repeating not just to my students, but to myself: the end will come eventually–soon enough, but not a moment too soon–but you have to keep walking every last step to reach it.

Yes, it’s true: there’s a painted labyrinth in a parking lot off Church Street in downtown Keene…and there always seems to be at least one car parked right on top of it.